Around the Horn: Catchers

Varitek an ageless wonder for Sox

The following is the first in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each week until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Catchers.

BOSTON -- Where have all the catchers gone? That's something that scouts and executives continue to scratch their heads over as they desperately try to enhance depth at one of the most indispensable positions in baseball.

At a time when the lack of quality young catchers has never been more apparent, the Red Sox are fortunate to have a seemingly ageless rock behind the plate, not to mention the leader of their team.

When Jason Varitek reports to Spring Training in February, he will be embarking on his 10th season as Boston's primary catcher and 11th year with the club.

Offensively, Varitek has been better in some years than others. Defensively, he's been a difference-maker every year.

Last October -- as the Red Sox were en route to their second World Series championship in four seasons -- general manager Theo Epstein found a unique way of identifying Varitek's role.

"A good catcher who prioritizes the pitching staff over his own offensive performance is a huge asset to the organization. He's like the command center of our operation in terms of run prevention," Epstein said. "He takes all the information and is ultimately the one who puts down the right fingers. It's a great asset."

Of Varitek's many assets, the best is probably his game preparation. Varitek scours through a thick binder loaded with information on each hitter, and he shares his information during scouting meetings and in individual sessions with that night's starting pitcher.

"Trust 'Tek" might as well be a team motto, because it's one that virtually every Boston pitcher follows.

A sturdy physical presence, Varitek also remains as one of the best in the game at blocking the plate and preventing wild pitches.

If you want to nitpick and find a weakness in Varitek's defense, it's his throwing arm, which has never been quite the same since elbow surgery in 2001.

Aside from what he does on defense, Varitek also gives the Red Sox a switch-hitting bat who is capable of putting the ball out of the park.

Varitek hit .255 with 17 homers and 68 RBIs in 2007, and he has a way of getting big hits when his team needs it most.

One thing Varitek hasn't been able to avoid in recent seasons is a second-half decline at the plate. In truth, because of all he does behind the plate and the energy that takes up, there probably isn't much he can do.

In 2007, Varitek hit .279 before the All-Star break and .222 after.

Boston Red Sox
Catchers: In Varitek we trust
Corner IF: Sox spoiled by success
Middle IF: Second season for combo
Outfielders: Talent all around
Starters: Beckett leads elite staff
Bullpen: Papelbon the captain
DH/Bench: Ortiz simply the best

But in the World Series, Varitek hit .333 and drove in five runs.

What would happen to the Red Sox if Varitek went down? Unfortunately, they've gotten that answer twice. On June 7, 2001, Varitek fractured his right elbow making a brilliant catch on a foul pop. The Red Sox floundered right out of the American League pennant race without Varitek. Ditto in 2006, when Varitek underwent knee surgery in August.

All of that brings up an interesting point. Varitek is entering the final season of a four-year, $40 million contract that he signed on Christmas Eve 2004.

The Red Sox clearly have no intentions of letting Varitek walk after 2008. It will be interesting to see if the club can reach terms on a new deal with Varitek before the season starts. Agent Scott Boras often advises his clients not to sign deals until they exercise their right for free agency. But considering the unique relationship between Varitek and the Red Sox, an exception could be made. There were indications earlier this offseason that the sides had at least discussed exploring a new deal.

Since 2002, Varitek has been backed up by Doug Mirabelli. The only exception to that was in the first month of the 2006 season, when the Red Sox dealt Mirabelli to the Padres, only to reacquire him later.

Mirabelli is currently a free agent, and it's unclear if the Red Sox will bring the 37-year-old backup catcher back or look for a younger alternative. Though Mirabelli remains strong from a defensive standpoint -- particularly at handling Tim Wakefield's knuckleball -- his offense has declined in the past few years.

The one in-house candidate to be Varitek's backup is Kevin Cash, who held his own while catching Wakefield during Mirabelli's disabled-list stint last August. Cash was recently re-signed to a Minor League deal. However, Cash is probably even a step below Mirabelli offensively, but the Red Sox do like his makeup and defensive ability.

After acquiring George Kottaras in a trade for David Wells on Aug. 31, 2006, the Sox were hoping they had themselves a bright catching prospect. But that hasn't quite materialized yet, as Kottaras has been inconsistent in the Minor Leagues. He hit .241 with nine homers and 39 RBIs at Triple-A Pawtucket last season.

With all the uncertainty behind Varitek, it only reinforces how fortunate the Red Sox are to have him.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.